A burial site in central Italy, in use for 12,000 years, shows the shocking impact of lead pollution on the human body, researchers say.
As the global production of lead started and increased, people absorbed the toxic metal into their bodies, even though they were not involved in the production of lead.
People absorb lead simply by breathing the air around them, according to a study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The study could have important implications for the use of heavy metals, with demand set to skyrocket for use in electronics, batteries, solar panels and wind turbines.
Professor Yigal Erel of the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said: “The more lead we produce, the more likely people are to absorb it into their bodies. It has a highly toxic effect.
“This documentation of lead pollution throughout human history indicates that, remarkably, much of the estimated dynamics of lead production is replicated in human exposure. Thus, lead pollution in humans has closely followed their lead production rates.
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“The close relationship between levels of lead production and levels of lead in humans in the past suggests that without proper regulation, we will continue to experience the adverse health effects of toxic metal contamination.”
The use of lead has seen peaks and troughs throughout human history.
A sharp increase in lead production began 2,500 years ago with the production of coins, an increase that peaked during the Roman period before declining in the Middle Ages.
From 1,000 years ago, lead production was on the rise again, prompted by silver mining in Germany, then mining in the New World, and finally to meet requirements of the industrial revolution.
Scientists analyzed bone fragments from 130 people who lived in Rome from 12,000 years (long before the advent of metal production) until the 17th century.
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The researchers were able to calculate the level of lead pollution over time and showed that it closely mimicked the rate of global lead production.
Researchers have warned of increased use of lead and other toxic metals.
Lead is found throughout our daily lives in the form of next-generation batteries and solar panels that deteriorate over time and release their toxicity into the air we breathe and the soil from which we grow our crops.
Erel said: “Any increased use of metals should go hand in hand with industrial hygiene, ideally safe metal recycling and increased environmental and toxicological consideration in the selection of metals for industrial use. “
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